Although she had a 50-year career as a character actress in films, on the stage and on television, you almost certainly know her best as the Wicked Witch of the West in the MGM film classic, The Wizard of Oz. But an important component of Margaret Hamilton’s early career in acting came in children’s theatre programs sponsored by the Junior League of Cleveland, where she was a member. Children’s theatre programs were an important community outreach for many Junior Leagues in the 1920s and 1930s, including Cleveland.
While her role as the Wicked Witch seemed designed to traumatize younger viewers, Margaret Hamilton, who was trained as a teacher, gained recognition for her work as an advocate of causes designed to benefit children and animals, and retained a lifelong commitment to public education. “It’s so ironic: I don’t think there’s anybody who loves children more than I do, and now I’m famous for being the woman who scared thousands of them half to death,” Hamilton told the Toronto Telegram in 1969.
Her strengths as a character actor served her well in movies like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and My Little Chickadee and, later on TV, where she played Morticia Addams’ mother, “Hester Frump,” in three episodes of The Addams Family and soap operas like CBS’ The Secret Storm. Among her many TV appearances was an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, where she explained to children that she was only playing a role and showed how make-up transformed her into the witch.
Living in Manhattan after retirement, as a member of the Veterans Hospital Radio and Television Guild, she used her acting skills to work with disabled veterans and the blind, and appeared locally in television ads for groups that promoted companion animals for the blind and other disabled people. And, working under the auspices of the New York City Parks Department, she would often read stories to children gathered at the Hans Christian Anderson statue in Central Park.
Margaret Hamilton died in 1985.
Quite a life – and not just for the cinematic moment when she threatened Dorothy by hissing: “I’ll get you, my pretty — and your little dog, too!”